Plea deal for serial online harasser fits lenient pattern

Only hours before women marched through many U.S. cities in January, Christopher Cleary set off a manhunt when he posted a Facebook message threatening to kill "as many girls as I see" in retaliation for years of romantic rejection.

Cleary, 27, called himself a virgin who never had a girlfriend, stoking fears of another deadly rampage by a man blaming women for his problems. When police tracked his cellphone and arrested the Colorado resident at a McDonald's restaurant in Provo, Utah, Cleary said he had been upset and wasn't thinking clearly.

The frightening Facebook post fit a pattern of behavior for a troubled man with a history of terrorizing women he met over the internet.

His plea deal with Utah prosecutors appears to fit a pattern of lenient punishments — a common outcome for cyberstalking and online harassment cases.

"The vast majority of people, if there isn't a lot of training and education going on, tend to dismiss these things," said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia. "That's why stalking is so dangerous. You think, 'It's not a crime. He's got free speech.'"

Cleary pleaded guilty in April to a reduced charge of attempted threat of terrorism, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. But prosecutors agreed to recommend probation, sparing him any additional jail time in Utah beyond the months he's served since his Jan. 19 arrest.

If a judge accepts the recommended sentence during a hearing Thursday in Provo, it won't be the first time Cleary avoids a prison term. Judges in Colorado gave him similar breaks after a string of women and teenagers accused him of making threats and harassing them.

The prosecutor on the Utah case said the plea bargain is designed to secure a felony conviction that could help Colorado authorities get a prison sentence for Cleary's probation violations.

Agreeing to recommend probation was the key to securing his guilty plea, Deputy Utah County Attorney Douglas Finch said.

Finch said Utah's criminal statutes leave a "huge gap" between a misdemeanor charge of threatening violence and a felony charge of making a threat of terrorism. He said his office views Cleary as an "unbelievably dangerous individual" but wasn't certain it could prove the "stupid, horrible" message he posted on his Facebook account rose to the level of a terrorism threat.

"The problem is that I feel (Cleary) falls right in the middle of those two areas, but most likely he falls in the lowest level," Finch said.

At least eight people since 2012 have contacted authorities to accuse Cleary of stalking or harassing them, according to an Associated Press review of police and court records. Police in Colorado also investigated complaints that Cleary threatened to bomb a grocery store in 2013 after an employee refused to cash his check, threatened to slit the throat of a Denver city employee after his car was towed, and threatened a mass shooting at a mental health facility during a phone call in 2016.

Cleary was on probation for a marijuana conviction when, in 2016, he was charged with stalking two 18-year-old women he met online. He was on probation and in mental health court for the stalking cases when he was charged in 2017 with stalking and harassing a third woman who was Cleary's caseworker. The former caseworker told police Cleary created fake Craigslist ads soliciting sex and rape, using her phone number and an address within a block of her home.

Last year, judges in Jefferson County, Colorado, sentenced him to probation in all three stalking cases.

Cleary was still on probation in Jefferson County when he was arrested in Utah. Pam Russell, a spokeswoman for the county prosecutor's office, said once the Utah case has concluded, Cleary will be returned to Colorado and prosecutors will seek to revoke his probation and send Cleary to prison.

A public defender representing Cleary in Utah declined to comment. An attorney who represented him in Colorado said Cleary had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

Experts said Cleary appears to be emblematic of how police and courts typically handle cyberstalking and online harassment cases.

University of Maryland law professor Danielle Citron, author of the book "Hate Crimes in Cyberspace," said state criminal statutes outlawing such behavior typically are misdemeanors with light punishments that don't deter offenders. The criminal justice system tends to view online abuse as "no big deal," she said, and perpetrators get empathy while "we forget and erase the victims."

Jefferson County Judge Dennis Hall said he and a second judge who sentenced Cleary in April 2018 ultimately decided a prison sentence would be counterproductive, according to a transcript. "It won't do the community any good if I put you in prison and make you worse," Hall told Cleary.

Prosecutors had urged Hall to sentence Cleary to Community Corrections, a residential supervision and treatment program that's an alternative to prison or probation.

Victoria Lathrop, one of Cleary's earlier victims, said her ordeal didn't end when a judge in Weld County, Colorado, sentenced Cleary to probation for harassing her in 2015. She says she kept hearing from him for years, from different numbers or online identities.

Lathrop called police again, but she says they told her there was no way to be sure it was him. She wonders if authorities should have taken her case more seriously.

"If he's so persistent stalking women and doing this stuff, I don't think that violence is past him," she told AP.

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Kunzelman reported from College Park, Maryland, Dale from Philadelphia, and Slevin from Denver.